188. The Proposal for a Single Tax Is Not a New One

The expression "Single Tax" is familiar to everyone who has the least interest in fiscal reform. Because of the extensive propaganda which has developed in recent years, the single tax movement is often considered as a new proposal and as having distinct application to the taxation of land values. While the expression, in general, has come to have such an interpretation, the fact must not be overlooked that many different proposals have been made for a single tax, and at various stages in the development of economic history.

The Impôt Unique. - One of the most interesting proposals for a single tax was the impôt unique, proposed and championed in France about the middle of the eighteenth century by the Physiocratic School, of which Turgot, Quesnay, and Mirabeau were leaders. This school reasoned that the net product (produit net) of agriculture was the basis of all progress, and in the final analysis the place where the burden of all taxes rested. The basis of all industry and commerce - raw materials, food supplies, etc. - ultimately came from the land, and hence any tax burden, wherever placed, must be met finally from the products of land. A tax upon the products of land was therefore preferred as a direct and open burden to some other tax that would be shifted, perhaps by an expensive process, to the same source.

Much was accomplished in putting the system into effect until glaring inequalities in the tax burdens became apparent. Citizens with large incomes from stocks, with unquestioned ability to meet fiscal burdens, were escaping entirely, while the poor landowners were able to meet the tax burden only with the greatest difficulty. The injustice became so marked, and the dissatisfaction so evident, that the impôt unique was abandoned.

Single Tax on Incomes. - Not all single tax proposals have been for land taxes. As a means for social as well as fiscal reform, the Socialists have proposed a single tax to be levied upon incomes. The primary purpose of the proposal is to accomplish a redistribution of wealth through a steeply progressive rate. As Professor Plehn has pointed out, such a scheme as an exclusive tax system would fail because (1) it presupposes for its successful administration a method of distribution of wealth very different from that which the world now has; (2) it demands a perfection in the technic of administration as yet absolutely unattainable; (3) it would need, in order to be administered fairly, more honesty than men have yet shown in their dealings with the government.1 The income tax, no doubt, will come more and more into use as a part of fiscal systems as income taxes come to be looked upon with greater favor. The primary reason for its use, however, will continue to be fiscal rather than social.